The Case for a National Community Relocation Program

By: Sean Cameron

The impact that climate change is having on the resilience of Canadian communities is becoming clearer with every passing season as rising global temperatures trigger more frequent, deadly natural disasters across the country. A growing share of areas where Canadians are displaced may soon be considered no longer livable, yet the support provided by the federal and provincial governments and the private sector have been inconsistent. Homeowners require reliable government support to relocate to more resilient regions as the climate continues to change. With more Canadians becoming vulnerable to displacement, the federal government is now recognizing the need for a consistent funding mechanism to facilitate equitable planned community relocation.

Flooding poses the greatest threat to community resilience and is predicted to become even more catastrophic in the coming decades. The increasing damage to homes and infrastructure along Canadian coastlines have resulted in significant public losses and are requiring greater recovery payments from the federal government. The annual cost of disaster recovery is estimated to have risen to $902 million between 2017 and 2022, could reach $2.6-$5.4 billion in the 2020s and over $48 billion by 2080 as sea levels rise. As insured losses have also increased, rising flood insurance premiums are reaching unaffordable prices for homeowners all over the country. Many Canadian homes are becoming uninsurable as the risk of incurring flood damages grows, forcing homeowners to apply for economic relief through Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements

Although no consistent federal funding program for proactive community relocation currently exists, Public Safety Canada recently formed the Task Force on Flood Insurance and Relocation in response to worsening floods and rising insurance costs associated with flood damage. After the Prime Minister’s 2019 and 2020 mandate letters to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness called for such action, the Task Force’s final report is expected to be submitted in the spring of 2022. The Task Force will be looking for low-cost insurance and relocation options for households in high risk areas. However, options for Canadians impacted by other natural disasters such as the wildfires and extreme temperatures in British Columbia this past summer are not included in the Task Force’s mandate.

Indigenous and remote communities experience disproportionate effects of climate change as they are geographically situated in areas more prone to natural disasters. The 2019 Canadian budget states those living on Indigenous reserves are 19 times more likely to be forced to evacuate their homes due to wildfires, flooding, and storms than those not living on reserves. This trend is expected to continue, as melting permafrost in northern Canada could affect dozens of Indigenous communities and result in over a billion dollars of infrastructure damage. Making matters worse is the lack of funding support for First Nations groups from the federal government relative to urban communities. Despite the increased risk First Nations communities face, Budget 2021 stipulates just 10% of the $1.375 billion in funding from the Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund must go to Indigenous recipients. The DMAF does not consider projects involving “relocation of entire communities or properties associated with relocation” eligible for funding.

Communities across Canada are voicing their concerns and demanding preventive action from the federal government as climate change places more regions at risk. The Kaschechewan First Nations in northern Ontario signed a deal with the federal and provincial government in 2019 to relocate their community to Site 5 within eight to ten years due to repeated seasonal flooding. Although relocation will save taxpayers millions of dollars on annual evacuation costs, funding has yet to be set aside for the project, which is estimated to cost between $500 million and $1 billion. The Tuktoyaktuk community in the Northwest Territories has faced similar funding challenges from the federal government as rising sea levels and coastal erosion threaten the safety of their community. 

A national standard program is needed so that neighbouring communities impacted by natural disasters receive equal support. The absence of such a program allows inequitable responses to continue, as was seen in 2017 and 2019 when flooding affected communities in the Ottawa-Gatineau region. While the Quebec government created a disaster relief program and offered buyouts for residents to relocate to less disaster-prone areas, Ottawa residents were not offered the same incentive. A cohesive long-term strategy would have the benefit of eliminating disparate relief for impacted communities and ensuring that adaptation resources are not misdirected to areas likely to be ravaged by further disasters in the near future. 

Some local and provincial governments have taken matters into their own hands by creating policies to consider and facilitate reactive and proactive community relocation. Following flooding in 2013, the Alberta government created the Disaster Recovery Program which allowed impacted homeowners to apply for relocation funding via government buyout. In British Columbia, the city of Surrey has developed the Coastal Flood Adaptation Strategy which includes planned relocation in its potential long-term strategy for dealing with rising sea levels and flood risk. The Action Plan to Protect the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence 2020-2030 was compiled through a collaboration of civil society groups and calls for a “retreat and re-naturalisation” approach in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence regions that are most at risk of environmental degradation. 

This is not to say that community relocation should be the only option considered by the Canadian government. Mitigation strategies often have positive return on investment and are less disruptive to Canadians. However, a strategy that recognizes which solution is more suitable to a particular community in the long-term is needed and would offer the government another way to respond to a rapidly changing climate. As Canada warms at twice the global average rate, ad hoc approaches to relocating vulnerable communities are neither efficient nor equitable.

Indeed, “planned relocation is an issue of justice”. Many Canadians do not have the privilege to relocate on their own before their situation becomes so dire that migrating becomes necessary. Therefore, the federal government has a responsibility to invest in diligent planning and support programs for those who do not have the capacity for voluntary relocation. A successful relocation strategy goes beyond funding – information sharing, community engagement, and stakeholder collaboration are all essential to adequate program implementation that prevents further marginalization. The Task Force on Flood Insurance and Relocation is a good start, and Canadians should soon have a sense of how serious the federal government is about being proactive in helping Canada’s most vulnerable communities.

Sean Cameron is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Geography from the University of British Columbia. He is currently working as a Research Assistant for the Committee on the Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainability. Sean is interested in exploring how public policy can confront climate change while reducing social inequality in urban and rural communities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s